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TV and children’s self-esteem

May 31, 2012

If you are a white girl, a black girl ,or a black boy, exposure to today’s electronic media tends to make you feel worse about yourself. If you’re a white boy, you’ll feel better, according to a new study led by an Indiana University Bloomington professor.

Nicole Martins, an assistant professor of telecommunications in the IU College of Arts and Sciences, and Kristen Harrison, professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, also found that black children in their study spent, on average, an extra 10 hours a week watching television.

“We can’t deny the fact that media has an influence when they’re spending most of their time — when they’re not in school — with the television,” Martins says.

Harrison adds, “Children who are not doing other things besides watching television cannot help but compare themselves to what they see on the screen.”

Martins and Harrison surveyed a group of about 400 black and white preadolescent students in communities in the Midwest over a year-long period. Rather than look at the impact of particular shows or genres, they focused on the correlation between the time in front of the TV and the impact on their self-esteem. Their paper was published in Communication Research.

“Regardless of what show you’re watching, if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good for you,” Martins says of characters on TV. “[White males] tend to be in positions of power, have prestigious occupations, high education, glamorous houses, beautiful wives, with very little portrayals of how hard they worked to get there.

“If you are a girl or a woman, what you see is that women on television are not given a variety of roles,” she adds. “The roles are pretty simplistic; they’re almost always one-dimensional and focused on the success women have because of how they look, not what they do or what they think or how they got there.

“This sexualization of women presumably leads to a negative impact on girls.”

With regard to black boys, they are often criminalized in many programs, shown as hoodlums and buffoons, without much variety in the kinds of roles they occupy.

“Young black boys are getting the opposite message: that there are not lots of good things that they can aspire to,” Martins says. “If we think about those kinds of messages, that’s what’s responsible for the impact.

“If we think just about the sheer amount of time they’re spending, and not the messages, these kids are spending so much time with the media that they’re not given a chance to explore other things they’re good at, that could boost their self-esteem.”

Martins says the study counters claims by producers that programs have been progressive in their depictions of under-represented populations. An earlier study co-authored by Martins and Harrison suggests that video games “are the worst offenders when it comes to representation of ethnicity and gender.”

Other research is starting to show the impacts of other kinds of entertainment sources, such as video games and hand-held devices. It indicates that young people are becoming creative at “media multitasking.”

“Even though these new technologies are becoming more available, kids still spend more time with TV than anything else,” Martins notes.

Interestingly, the young people were asked about their consumption of print media, but the results were not statistically significant.

Martins conducted the research while she was completing her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, as part of a larger longitudinal study done with her co-author, Harrison. They sought out certain school districts in Illinois because of their diversity, but African-Americans were the predominant minority group.

Funding for this research came from the William T. Grant Foundation.

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